Thursday, November 05, 2009

Ghetto Lit - Good, Bad, Embarrassing?

Juan Williams, one of my favorite political commentators and writers, has an article in the Wall Street Journal on what he calls Ghetto Lit. I've often wondered how serious black authors feel about having their books housed in their own little ghettos in bookstores all across America. You know what I'm talking about, those little sections labeled "Black Literature" and the such. I assume that black authors sell more books to African-American readers that way, but I also believe that they lose many more sales to white and hispanic readers - a net loss to them and to their publishers.

Ghetto Lit, admittedly, is a whole other thing. From what I've personally seen of it, and from what Mr. Williams has to say about the genre, perhaps those writers are lucky to get their books inside a bookstore at all.
As the author of books on black history and black culture, I was disappointed but not surprised. To see a working-class 30-ish black woman with a book these days is almost always to find her reading a selection from the fastest-growing segment of African-American letters, a genre called "ghetto lit" or "gangster lit."

The best that can be said about these books is that they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. Black women are much bigger readers than black men, and gangster lit dominates the best-seller list in Essence Magazine, which calculates rankings using sales at black-owned bookstores nationwide. Recent titles shout out to the hard, fast lifestyle: "Bad Girlz 4 Life," "Still Hood" and "From the Streets to the Sheets."
[...]
The black imagination as revealed in gangster lit is centered on the world of drug dealers— "dough boys" who are heavy with drug money—and the get-rich-quick rappers and athletes who mimic the druggie lifestyle. And there are lots of "ghetto-fabulous" women, referring to themselves as bitches, carrying brand-name handbags and wearing big, gaudy jewelry. Attitude and anger are everything. The dispiriting word "nigger" is used freely by black characters talking about one another.
[...]
At least two black-owned publishing houses have been created as a result of the growing market for these books. Large established publishers, including Simon & Schuster, Kensington Books and St. Martin's, are on the bandwagon. They created "urban fiction" divisions after realizing that the grass-roots demand for these books was strong enough that authors were making money with vanity-press printing and hand-to-hand sales at black beauty salons, over the Internet and even from car trunks.
[...]
Not only the best but the worst that can be said about these books is they are an authentic literary product of 21st-century black America. They are poorly written, poorly edited and celebrate the worst of black life.
[...]
It is hard to believe, but legendary black writers telling stories about the full scope of the black experience, from Langston Hughes to Toni Morrison, are being pushed aside. Inspirational books on black history or the civil-rights struggle are now for the classroom only. Even libraries now stock gangster-lit novels, because they bring new readers in the door.
Mr. Williams obviously feels very strongly that this kind of writing is harmful to the community it is targeting - and I just as strongly agree with him. The other word that comes to mind is embarrassing. Come on, guys, you can do better than this. Is this really the way you want to represent yourself to the world. Shame on you, writers of this trash. Shame on you.

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